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Book Review: Where Am I Wearing? A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People that Make Our Clothes by Kelsey Timmerman

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When I first sat down to read Where Am I Wearing?: A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People that Make Our Clothes by Kelsey Timmerman, I was concerned that this was going to be a preachy travelogue espousing the evils of buying clothing made in developing countries. Instead, it is a surprisingly even-handed look at the garment industry.

Timmerman travels to Honduras, Bangladesh, Cambodia, and China in search of the factories that made his favorite T-shirt, boxers, jeans, and sandals. He doesn’t approach his journey as any sort of political statement; it is more of an excuse to get paid for travel. His attempt to locate the factory in Honduras that made his T-shirt was more of an afterthought while in the country. He had no luck, but didn’t try too hard. He has better luck in the other countries. In Bangladesh, he made friends with a man who helped him lie his way into a meeting with one of the manufacturers, who allowed him to see a factory. In Cambodia, the manufacturers, proud of the great strides made in their country, and labor laws in place, were all too pleased to accommodate Timmerman. On the opposite side of the spectrum, he could not get into a factory in China. He couldn’t even get into the manufacturer’s office.

In all the countries he visits, Timmerman spends time with the factory workers. They all have the same story: the workers have left their families in the countryside, moved to the city to earn a wage, and send most of their earnings home. The workers do not get to see their families frequently. They live in what Westerners would call abject poverty; they call it the emerging middle class. The general consensus of working conditions is that the people work long hours for low pay, though the factories seem to generally be clean and reasonably safe. Most of these countries have child labor laws in place, forbidding anyone under 15 from working.

It is not an easy life, and I think it sounds worse to people who live in fully developed countries. However, working in the garment industry is one of the better jobs to have. In every country, Timmerman asked factories workers if they would want Americans to boycott products made in their countries in protest of their working conditions. The answer was always a resounding no. Without us buying their products, factories would shut down, and there are few other work options available. The most common alternatives are scavenging and begging. A third option is not discussed in the book: prostitution.

As a sort of epilogue, Timmerman visits an American factory in upstate New York, where conditions are what we would expect from this country: a fair living wage, safe conditions, and camaraderie. It is interesting to note that this factory, which makes sports apparel, makes jerseys and uniforms mainly for professional and college sports – which means a far higher price tag.

Where Am I Wearing? is a book for the layperson. This is not a scholarly examination of global economics or human rights. Timmerman, in this book, is like a dumb Morgan Spurlock (he calls himself “dumb” and a “moron,” not me!) or an open-minded Michael Moore. He is not out to vilify the garment industry; he is not out to make the reader feel bad for living a modern life. He is merely presenting what he finds, both the good and the bad. After reading the book, it did not make me feel the need to change my buying habits, but it did make me more aware of the world around me.

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